Monday, June 28, 2010

Tolkien's Macbeth

Teaching Macbeth this last semester, I saw a couple of things that I had never read being reference to Tolkien before. That doesn't mean that they haven't been, I am just unaware of anyone who has so made the connection.

It is well known, however, that the scene of Elsinore Wood coming to Macbeth was a scene that Tolkien didn't like, and so rewrote into his Ents' attacking Isengard. He speaks about this in the Letters and many others have repeated and mentioned it.

But there are two other places where I see at least a Tolkienian analogue. In Act 4.1 MacBeth has gone to the Weird sisters and asked them to tell him the future. Among the prophecies he receives is that "none of woman born Shall harm MacBeth." Macbeth then says, "Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man for none of woman shall harm Macbeth."

One can easily see the analogue. The Witch-King in Book V of Lord of the Rings is bloody, bold, and resolute placing faith in the prophecy "no living man may hinder me" (given in another form elsewhere as "not by the hand of man shall he fall."). The Witch King, hereafter Alf, is very confident because of this prophecy as MacBeth is. And as with most prophecies of this sort (like the Delphi Oracle) both Tolkien's and Shakespeare's prophecies turn on the interpretation of a single word that the prophecy receiver understands in a normal way but is meant in a slightly different fashion. Both are surprised to learn of their error while facing an armed opponent set to slay them, and both are so slain. So the similarities go beyond just the fact that both have similar prophecies: the narrative structure is much the same as well. I haven't checked a Folklore encyclopedia or anything so for the moment all I can say is analogue; but it is tempting to say source or inspiration. But I'll hold off.

A bit later in Act 4.4 Malcolm the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland and MacDuff have a chat. In this chat it is mentioned about the glorious king Edward of England. The image is practically Arthurian in nature: the perfect kingdomm that contrasts so sharply to what Scotland has become under the usurper MacBeth's rule. In this discussion Malcolm talks about "a most miraculous work in the good king". Apparently the good kind, calling on God of course, heals "strangely-visited people". He also has prophecy and "sundry blessings hang about his throne." Sound familiar Tolkienistas? Yes, it does sound rather like Aragorn, son of Arathorn: who has some gift of prophecy and foresight, who heals "strangely-visited people" with this touch apparently, and when he comes to his throne there are certainly sundry blessings.

Now some of this is typical: the whole image owes a lot to very old, traditional images of good kings. But before MacBeth and coming to know his sources (this play was written for King Jimmy I of Merry Olde...who claimed to be able to heal subjects with his touch) I had not encountered the idea of the healing by the king before. So another element to check out.

But as much as Tolkien is said not to have liked Shakespeare, (and Tolkien later clarifies this mentioning specifically the elves and faeries in Midsummer's Night Dream), it is interesting to see the number of analogues between Macbeth and LoTR.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Last of the Christmas Reading

So, at last, six months later, I get to mention the last of my reading over Christmas break. No worries, I haven't been able to read much of anything since. That fact is frustrating. The wonderful thing about becoming a tenure track faculty person in a couple of months is that I will not have duties this time next year other than to pursue my research agenda (and Heroic Age, and SASLC, and an encyclopedia....but I digress).

Anyway, way back when as I refreshing my mind in pre to become a professional medievalist, I bought a whole bunch of books to read. Among them was this one: The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe by James Chambers. I never got around to reading it. In my defense, the stack was pretty high, and you know, I lived above a drinking establishment, and there was Civilization and Quake to play, and there was a paper to research to submit with my applications and it didn't have to do with Mongols. But I've been carrying this around for a long time and decided it was time I gave it its due.

So to the book. Chambers is, or was, an amateur military historian, of the sort that only Britain really can have. He was also a journalist. Thus, the book is largely narrative. As an introduction to the Mongols, narrative was just the thing. Chambers relates events from disparate locales and traces seemingly unrelated events across a wide expanse of territory showing that these events divided by thousands of miles conspired to create other events that affected China and Hungary, for example. He is best, I think, when he is describing Mongol tactics.

The book is light on references. But Chambers makes up for it. The appendix and bibliography has a full list of primary and secondary works. Chambers often quotes the primary works, though he is honest that in the cases of works in Arabic, Chinese, Persian etc, he is dependent on French, German, Latin, and English translations. But the references are there nonetheless and should I ever get around to look them up or include them in a class (hey, I've put Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, and ibn Batuta into conversation, why not add some sources about the Mongols?). And everyone has heard of Ghengis Khan, but few will have heard of Subadei, equally a military genius. It was he who brought the Mongols to Europe, and it was he who suggested further attacks into Europe to the Khan. In some cases one can not but hear the "wa wa wa" music to read of the mistakes of the Europeans, or the loss of territory and life because noblemen wouldn't support their king in his efforts to protect their land.

Chambers also describes the political infighting following the Great Khan's death. The empire imploded. Perhaps not as badly as other places in other times, but nonetheless a Mongol empire that included Europe was within grasp but too many hands in the pot do rather spoil the dish, or the empire...whichever.

This is a good read for those like me who don't know much of anything detailed about the Mongols. I imagine it has remined in consistent print for about 30 years now because of this and because it is useful for teaching high school or introductory level history in colleges. But if you're like me, then I'd recommend the book.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shakespeare III

The two of you who read this may recall that I started way back in January to talk about what I was doing with Shakespeare in my first all Shakespeare course. I'd actually even made a second post on the subject. While the course is now over and some of the course activities are fading from my memory to make room for current and future courses, I'm trying to recall what I all we did and how. I'll be doing "Shakespeare for Teachers" in the Autumn, and to save myself doing 4 new preps, I decided I would simply retool my Spring 2010 Shakespeare course. So I am attempting to review class plans as I prepare the next one. So I return to a Medievalist mucking about in Shakespeare.

My last post in February mentioned that we had started MacBeth, and I discussed going through Act I. After pointing out the features I wanted them to note in Act I, the sisters as Fate, the natural world, the position of MacBeth etc, I set them loose on Acts II and III, once again in groups, each group responsible for studying and presenting a scene in those acts, getting them to pull out what themes and images and characterization they could. For Act IV, we performed some scenes and parts of scenes and I had them write questions based on those scenes for the midterm. For Act V, we returned to class discussion.

Elements to note: I talked about Aristolean definitions of tragedy and comedy current in the day, we discussed analogues with Marlowe's Faustus and the presentation of evil and the devil in both plays. We explored the juxtaposition of fate and free will; we noted the imagery of evil and its result on the land. In fact, I pointed out inversions and warped orders: the natural order is disturbed and the land suffers, the order of gender relationships is changed to detrimental effects, the social order is disturbed as a thane usurps the kingship. I talked about Renaissance notions of Order and how it works.

Among the other issues, I introduced the class to source and psychological criticisms. I am interested in this play how Shakespeare has changed his sources to create a MacBeth utterly different than the MacBeth of history or of Holinshed. Also, I wanted to explore the MacBeths states of mind as we move through the play and introduce them to a psychological reading of the characters. As with other critical approaches, I stuck to a fairly introductory discussion and application with them.

We also could not resist some historicism, and so we talked about the situation in 1609 or and the post-Guy Fawkes rebellion and so on, as well as the necessity to flatter the king, the growth of the Banquo legend and who James I was in relationship to that legend. Last but not least we compared the notions of heroism in Henry V (our first course play) and MacBeth and compared and contrasted the two as mirror images: Henry rises from being an inadequate human being to being an epic king, MacBeth falls from a practically epic hero to being an utter villain. Along the same lines we talked about political theology in the two plays, and Shakespeare's playing with the notion of evil.

By and large the students had a hard time completing this play. The themes, heavy atmosphere, and difficult imagery made for difficult reading.

This brought us to 6 weeks into the semester. The first week was introductory, and we spent 2 1/2 weeks on each play so far. Week 7 was dedicated to the first group presentations and they were to have read The Tempest while we were doing this. There were two presentations assigned: each group was to read a play we were not reading in class. This first presentation was pretty easy: present the play, it's historical setting, the themes and major characters, and the plays place in the canon of Shakespeare's works. Some groups did comedies, some tragedies. Two groups wanted to do Hamlet so I combined them to work on Hamlet...the Hamleteers ended up being quite awesome. But group presentations took two days, a week of the course.

That's the end of week 7. Week 8 was spent on The Tempest. By this point, people are dropping like flies. The problem with teaching at this school and teaching an elective is that people don't stop working to attend school, so often by midterm time I've lost half the class. I'm not alone, so I know it isn't me. Everyone has this problem, though it makes grading post-midterm much easier. Anyway, class attendance was dropping precipitously in part because everyone including me wanted Spring Break and because of the other problem.

So, I did most of the talking. I finished up some things I had wanted to say about MacBeth, then talked about Romance-Comedy combo of genres. I talked about the growth and development of the Romance tradition and the typical motifs, images, and tropes. I then did the same for comedy and we talked about then how these elements are played out in the play. I even told them the story of Yvain to illustrate the beginning of the genre.

We talked again about the disruption of the social order that needs to be put right, contrasted Prospero with the Weird Sisters and MacBeth, talked about notions of liminal space, and the role of forgiveness. We situated the island and noted the relationships of Prospero, Caliban, Ariel, and Miranda. We focused a lot of discussion on the character Caliban and his supposed rape attempt, to fill the island with Calibans, and of course the role of language and civilization in Caliban's life.

We also took on a little post-colonial and feminist criticism.

The Tempest got a bit of short shrift in many ways which is too bad. But onward! Then followed the midterm.

Next time I'll pick up in week 10 of the course and Taming of the Shrew.

Monday, June 07, 2010

I mentioned some time ago that I was working on a Cynewulf paper. I've been reworking my draft of late. Below is the new, way too long introduction, but it says things I want to say and establish. I'd love to have some input and reaction, and I'm certain that others have been here previously. I just don't know who or where or the proper vocabulary. Oh, and this version doesn't include the copious footnotes. So there it is. Enjoy.

Much of Anglo-Saxon poetry is a “mash-up” of genres. A "mash-up" is a current popular culture term that has a number of uses. In the computer field, the term is used to describe a new service, application, or web site that combines data or functionality from multiple sources. Similarly, the terms is used in modern music to describe a song that seamlessly integrates the lyrics and music of another song or songs into itself. A classical quodlibet is an early example of this. A "mash-up" is not another term for intertextuality: the latter studies how one text has absorbed and transformed another.1 Nor is it allusion or inference; lastly a "mash-up" is not simply the study of sources. All of these have their place in the literary critic's toolbox, and admittedly there are times when drawing a sharp contrast between the source critical study and the intertextual study is difficult as they meld into one another. A "mash-up," however, is a farrago, not a transformation of one thing by another, not only the discovery of the original sources on which the creator is drawing, what the creator alludes or references. Rather, a "mash-up", this farrago, is the combination of texts, genres, sources, ideas, tropes, etc into something that is both hybrid and yet new. Much of our study of Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially that in Old English, has focused on the Source Critical with some nod in more recent years to the intertextual. While this is not the only critical approach to Old English poetry, these approaches have towered as among the most common, and perhaps, even the most important.

Typically, the poems that have attracted the most attention from scholarship are those that merge a “native” Germanic genre with some kind of Christian genre or theme. Examples are not difficult to find, nor are illustrations of this point limited to the Anglo-Saxons. One could examine Dream of the Rood, Judith, Exodus just to name three in the Old English corpus. Genesis B, Heliand, and even the Ludwigslied are near contemporary parallels from the continent. Commonly, approaches to these texts have examined the sources where discoverable, examined various editorial and philological concerns, and noted the "Germanization" of Christian or Greco-Roman themes, tropes, motifs, or admired the Germanic heroic poetry on its own terms.

In our discussions of the Germanic and Christian in Old English poetry, however, the approach has typically been to explore or assume a specifically "Christian" element and observe how that element is given a "Germanic" expression. Thomas Hill noted more than 20 years ago that it is a "commonplace to observe that Cynewulf Germanicizes his source...."2 Such ideas are not limited to Cynewulf but are part of the discussion of every poem in the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Much of these kinds of study assumes a dichotomy between Christian and pagan, Christian and German, or even German and Christo-Roman.

What the reminder of this paper seeks to do is reopen this question. While Cynewulf is certainly drawing on known sources, he is not merely recasting them into a Germanic heroic poem. He is rather taking elements of Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman culture, Christian commentary and theology, and his own cultural outlook drawing on multiple texts, genres, and images to produce a true "mash-up" poem about the Ascension. The poet is not merely derivative of his sources; he is merely giving a Christian theme a coloring drawn from his native culture. It is more than those things: more than source study, more than intertextual, more than expressing an old idea in new language, however loaded that language may be. Perhaps most of all, the dichotomy that we too often draw between Christian and German, Christian and pagan, etc., distorts the picture of what Anglo-Saxon poets were doing.

The process by which this will be approached will take three phases. The first part examines Cynewulf's use of the catechetical genre as source, inspiration, and perhaps as his goal in producing this poem. Second, the paper examines cultural motifs and ideas about kingship, throne-ascensions, and images of divine and human kings extending from the ancient context of the Hebrew psalms to Cynewulf's own contemporaries and beyond. The third part looks at the result of the Ascension, the giving of gifts and what that catalog of charismata in Cynewulf's poem indicates in the foregoing context. All three of these building blocks, however, will be cast against a backgroud that Cynewulf is not being just intertextual, not just giving a Germanic coloring a Christian scene and so on but is taking part in a process of creating something new.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Matters Theological

N. B.: I began this post way back in the first days of April and never had time to finish it. With a few more moments of late, I here it with you anyway and then onward to other posts!

My wife bought me Jim Lahey's My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method for Christmas. I recommend it; it really is a simple method of making delicious bread. What does this have to do with theology? Simple. One of the things that got Lahey going on bread is that we moderns had somehow made it far too hard and involved. In fact, I stayed away from making bread except in a bread machine for just those reasons. Anyway, his method is simple: mix the ingredients, let stand 12 to 18 hours, bake at nearly 500 in a dutch oven. Fabulous.

Now, considering his research, the way the loaf looks, and imagery of ancient and medieval loaves, I think the man has discovered why bread is so ubiquitous in the ancient and medieval world. Easy, simple, delicious. And it suddenly hit me the way that only the obvious can. When in the Lord's prayer it says "Give us this day our daily bread....", well, I just figured out what that means in real terms. For a handful of ground grain, a bit of yeast, salt and water or salt water, and about 30 seconds of mixing, one has daily bread. Surely there were times when even some of those simple ingredients would not be available to all strata of society. Even in the modern period---I recently taught Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya in which just this sort of unavailability of grain to make the necessary bread to survive happened. And one can't help but think of the dole in the Roman Colosseum: keep the crowd satisfied by throwing them a daily bread supply and keep them entertained with the games, and they don't riot. Panem et circenses, as ol' Juvenal phrased it. Anyway, I digress...ok, I'm digressing some more and will mention that one of my favorite blogs is Bread and Circuses. Anyway, making bread and reading Lahey's personal journey to get past our modern, industrialized approach to something closely akin to the bread eaten by our forebears--and what Jesus was talking about in requesting that God give us that tasty, mouth-watering, loaf everyday. From Jesus' mouth to God's ear...

Now for the medievalist, when you look up the passage in the Vulgate, ol Jerome translated the Greek into Latin as "supersubstantialem"--trying to come to grips with the Greek: epiousios, usually glossed as "sufficient for the day." Jerome justifies his translation in his commnetary on St. Matthew's gospel by claiming that when this word in appears in the LXX or in Symmachus that the word indicates "future" bread, as does the word in the Gospel according to the Hebrews (which for Jerome is the "authentic Matthew"). So rather than "daily" bread, Jerome and all Vulgate dependent readings spiritualize the bread...the bread of life rather than the the bread necessary for life. It has been an interesting week that now connects Gospel of the Hebrews, making bread, and the Lord's prayer.

But that's not all. Over at Magistra et Mater we have a meditation on whether the Fall and Science can be partners. Wow. Huge question, and certainly not the first time such a question has been asked. Magistra answers it by looking at the differences between hunter-gatherer societies and agrarian cultures--the latter being less advantageous t most human beings, who by the way were the ones growing the grain, grinding it into flour, and making the bread for the upper classes. Anyway, the value of myth is that there are many applications: from a psychological one of describing the growth from childhood to adulthood, or Magistra's application of the change from hunter-gatherers (eating what the garden produces as needed vs. agriculture post-fall) to agrarian societies, or Star Trek's frequent dealing with the theme that we have outgrown Eden: that what defines us is the need to push on and out and explore and know.

What all these interpretations, and most of the theological ones such as "disobedience" miss in the story of the Fall is the result: that now Adam and Eve know good and evil. There's even a hint in the word "know" of deciding or determining good and evil. But that's the issue: it isn't simply the disobedience over munching a piece of fruit, but it is the knowing of things that are the provenance of the divine: what good and evil is. This definition fits well the growth of humanity whether we apply it to society, to children becoming adults or what have you: moving from childhood to adulthood comes with knowing what is good and evil, right and wrong and being responsible for those choices; moving from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies was also attended with increased control from the top of society in the form of law--which as Paul points out teaches us what is good and evil. In asking any question about the Bible and science though one can only note the irony that the Bible made modern science possible--regardless of whether one looks for reconciliation between the myth and the science--one might argue that such is the result of knowing good and evil. Further, while the Bible makes modern science possible and in fact informed early science to a gread deal, the child has replaced the parent--not only in proving that much of what was taken as "true" in the Bible isn't, but in that our new priesthood wears white lab coats; rather than training in the Bible and skills and arts that are focused ultimately on getting one closer to the divine, our education system now is largely concerned with making certain students achieve high science and math scores on standardized tests. I like the irony.

And speaking of Paul, discussion of Paul on the Synoptic-L list has turned slightly to noting that we really only have Paul's word for what he says about Peter and earliest Christianity. It's an interesting discussion especially when one realizes that so much of the modern historiography of the earliest strata of Christianity depend directly on reading that episode and what it might mean against a larger canvass. But we do only have one side, and the question is how historically accurate is that presentation and how much weight can be placed upon it? Unanswerable question on the basis of the evidence we have. But a good question and issue to keep in mind when doing early Christian history.